Back in 2000, I was recruited into Nortel Networks as part of an initiative to provide advice and guidance to its mobile operator clients on how best to exploit emerging mobile data networks in the business sector. At the time, I knew petty much zilch about the telecommunications industry, but was hired because Nortel had the foresight to understand that people with an enterprise application background were going to be instrumental in maximising the potential.
Over the course of the following year, however, it became clear that there was a massive disjoint between what organisations would genuinely find useful from cellular data capability and the way in which the operators were thinking. Right from day one, my view was that it was all about providing access to corporate systems ? the premise being that a) the applications businesses need are largely speaking already there, b) giving freer access to them while people are out and about has significant benefits in terms of both process efficiency and enhanced decision making, and c) while mobile access is important, the overwhelming majority of applications still also need to be run from desktops and other fixed locations.
The operators, on the other hand, were obsessed with ?owning? the complete ?service?, resulting in crazy notions such as field service management systems that were run purely from handsets, with no Web or PC interface at all (I kid you not, I was there in the workshop where some mobile ?visionary? came up with this idea). As far as many people in operator-land were concerned, this was the brave new world in which everything centred around mobility, and mobile operators would deliver everything businesses needed, providing hosted application services which stored and made the customer?s information available anytime, anyplace anywhere.
It was actually quite sad when you talked them through some of the realities, contrasting, for example, the requirements of hosting and managing an organisation?s mission critical data with the terms and conditions of the average voice mail contract, which basically said ?we make no guarantees that the messages people leave for you will be stored and retrieved reliably?, i.e. ?if we accidentally hose or destroy your inbox, then that?s your problem not ours?. As for implementing and providing support for applications that also needed to be delivered to the desk ? forget it.
As we know, the early market then settled down and operators became content with providing messaging middleware/relay services, predominantly to enable access to business users? existing email boxes. Meanwhile, system integrators got on with stitching all the pieces together for corporate customers, with operators acting as little more than providers of bit pipes. The relegation then looked in danger of being reinforced further as the cellular data piece increasingly became just a part of the overall connectivity equation.
I have always felt, however, that there was some potential middle ground that operators could occupy and add value in, and coming to the point, it looks as if Vodafone UK?s latest announcement has pretty much defined what that is.
The announcement tells us that Vodafone has a conditional agreement in place to acquire Aspective, a company we have been tracking at Freeform Dynamics for a long time and is a class act in the delivery of mobile enabled CRM solutions, among other things. Through this acquisition, Vodafone UK gets its hands on some serious consulting expertise and delivery know-how, but above all, these guys are applications specialists first and mobility specialists second, which is exactly the kind of culture injection Vodafone needs to catalyse the mindset shift necessary for mobile operator success in the business sector over the coming decade.
Also included in the announcement is an exclusive arrangement with Fiberlink, which, for those who don?t know, is a network service aggregator, allowing businesses to provide their mobile workforce with a coherent and convenient way of connecting up securely via anything from local fixed line ISPs to WiFi hotspots. This means Vodafone UK can now deliver a complete remote access connectivity service to its customers.
An acquisition of Isis was also announced, a company which I don?t know particularly well, but is described in the release as ?a leading provider of customer services, fleet management and bespoke managed services to the business market?.
The interesting thing about all of this is that Vodafone, in the UK at least, will soon have the ability to engage its business customers in a much more rounded, credible and empathetic remote access conversation ? all of the necessary components will be there to allow this.
But how far will it go?
Apart from its CRM product expertise and consulting service capability, Aspective also has a good track record in the application hosting space, the so called Software as a Service (SaaS) model as it is being referred to today. It sounds as if Isis does too. The big question is therefore whether we will now see Vodafone starting to push into this space more proactively, and we?ll report back on this after we speak with the guys in Newbury on a more in-depth basis later this week.
Either way, this is a very significant move for both Vodafone and the market in general.